Ministry of Fear (1944) Has Nothing To Be Afraid Of
Ministry of Fear. What a great title! What a mediocre film.
I was very excited to screen this Fritz Lang offering, since it’s one of the few from his American oeuvre that I hadn’t seen. And as much material as I poured over to find something, anything, that could cue me into the master’s sleight of hand or subtle shadings of irony, I could find nothing. There’s many scholars and critics who have waxed philosophic on Lang’s subversive “take” on the material, or his distaste for the material to the point of purposely making the movie so convoluted that the plot no longer matters. This may be true, but it still doesn’t make it any better. I know I’m in the minority, but I believe it’s just not that good.
Ministry of Fear was made during a very fruitful period for Lang. He had just finished a terrific and far superior WWII espionage thriller, Hangmen Also Die! and would follow with the classic noir The Woman in the Window, so he was in great demand, and was continually called upon to put his finesse on noirs and contemporary spy stories, but Ministry of Fear falls short.
Based on Grahame Green’s novel, The Ministry of Fear, screenwriter Seton I. Miller retained very little of the original story’s plot. Author Greene supposedly hated the film. I’m with Greene. After all, this is the guy who wrote The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana and many other great spy thrillers.
The story is disarmingly simple. During World War II, Stephen Neale is released from a mental asylum after serving two years for killing his terminally ill wife. He wants to stay as far away from the law as possible, but fate has other plans. After mistakenly getting a cake at a carnival that was intended for an enemy spy, Neal is sent on a wild goose chase involving microfilm, Nazis, mistaken identity, and a rooftop gun battle.
This mistaken identity theme has worked to much greater effect in many films, including Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Saboteur. Both those films’ stories and performances allow us to feel the paranoia and the panic that the protagonists’ suffer from as they try to clear their names, while also running from the law. Ministry’s story and lead performance offer up barely any opportunities to play that important plot point out.
Ray Milland is Stephen Neale. I’m not a big Milland fan, and this film is a good argument why. He’s stiff, carries none of the weight of his character’s past with him, and seems to sleepwalk through the role. He’s one of those actors who’s always the same, and if you like the persona, then you like the actor. I just don’t find anything that provocative or watchable about him. While he’s been in several good movies (The Uninvited, The Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder) it’s always something else that generally draws me in.
Dan Duryea as a mysterious man is very good, but he’s not in it enough to make a difference. Marjorie Reynolds, who I’ve had a crush on ever since seeing her as a Revolutionary War ghost in Abbott & Costello’s The Time of Their Lives, tries her darndest, but struggling with a very fake “Austrian” accent, she becomes another obstacle to get past in trying to enjoy the film.
That’s not to say there aren’t some nice Lang flourishes. The opening with Milland waiting for a clock to strike six so he can leave the sanitarium is nice, there’s a good fistfight in a dark apartment, and the final shootout on a rooftop is lit only by gunfire. But these parts don’t make up an interesting result.
Ministry of Fear deserves a better film for such a strong title. The same could be said for Journey Into Fear, made a year earlier with Orson Welles, and PCF Editor Brandy Dean’s favorite actor, Joseph Cotton. In fact, both Journey and Ministry share some similarities, least of which includes two master directors (Welles and Lang) working at odds with their material. Welles fans, much like fans of Lang, have dug into Journey to find great elements of the director at play, but again, they’re just not there.
If you are a Lang enthusiast, there’s reason enough to see Ministry of Fear, just to be able to check it off your list. But for anyone else who has a passing interest in noir or World War II espionage, I would suggest Dymytryk’s Cornered, or Welles’ The Stranger, or anything else by Lang for that matter.